Wednesday, 24 May 2006

Flatscreen upgrade

Catching up with the backlog while keeping up with the new stuff is order of the week.

Got my new computer delivered and set-up without major problems, though it was a day's headache to import files and transfer contacts data from the dinosaur machine onto this PC. Happily, the faster processor (Athlon 64 bit 3500+ on Windoze XP) on this system makes home-computing a pleasure, again! 'New toy syndrome' is unavoidable, and I look forward to copying DVDs, and getting website updates completed in something more like real-time, instead of having to wait endless minutes just to open Word documents as was routine failing of my previous desktop.

Got the fireplace knocked out, and bricked up, and then started re-decorating the front room. Still hunting for replacement furniture, so touring local suite shops in Newport, tomorrow.

Monday, 15 May 2006

Interzone weekend

Having purposely let my BSFA membership lapse, I decided the money saved had to go elsewhere, anyway, but perhaps it could be spent more wisely. None of the other offers I glanced at online looked as tempting as a backdated subscription to Interzone, and my first bumper fun pack of five issues arrived swiftly. Despite being told via email that IZ #200 had sold out, the helpful staff at TTA Press managed to filch one from a shadowy parallel world and, happily, that milestone edition was included in my chosen batch of back numbers.

So slickly designed you can hardly get a handle on it nowadays, this all-singing all-dancing genre magazine for thinking SF readers has evolved to meet the marketing challenges of 21st century newsstand publishing. IZ chief Andy Cox is not to be confused with a 'zine editor who's only going through the motions. With an uncompromising determination to raise production standards and a gleeful disregard for the stuffy traditions of the last century's bi-monthly serials, "Britain's longest running science fiction magazine" today sports eye-popping colour throughout and has frequently dazzling layouts, so its overall presentation is seldom less than stunning, boasting visuals from a parade of talented artists - including Jesse Speak, 'Glitchwerk', Vincent Chong, David Senecal, Ian Simmons, and the great Rik Rawling.

Despite its occasional pomposity and relentlessly camp poeticising of answers to Michael Lohr's usually straightforward questions, I enjoyed IZ #200's generally waffle-free interview with Richard Calder, a genuinely eccentric literary stylist of impeccable pedigree whose post-cyberpunk trilogy (Dead Girls/ Boys/ Things) was - for me - one of the brightest events in SF publishing during the early to mid-1990s. Calder's fiction presides over subsequent issues of IZ with the awesome delirium of his novella After The Party sprawling across #201 to #203, shoving aside - but not without a mighty effort - even top-notch material from Paul Di Filippo, Elizabeth Bear's paired stories Wax and Wane, Jay Lake's gloomy The American Dead, and Among The Living by Karen D. Fishler (weirdly, Fishler's story is illustrated by Chris Nurse... and Fishler is dead ringer for a nurse I used to know named Christine).

All that said, and nonfiction aside, the best slice of SF entertainment in #200 is, predictably enough, from Rudy Rucker (author of madcap idea-fest, Saucer Wisdom). Guadalupe And Hieronymus Bosch tells of an unlikely romantic encounter - between a 21st century American woman and Bosch himself, that whimsically redraws the whole socio-cultural map in devastating dreamscape fashion. Of course, this being a Rucker tale, the meeting that so casually knocks the home universe completely out of whack is actually enabled by a shape-shifting, cosmos-surfing, meddlesome trickster-alien. It's an instant classic of the cheesy-but-fun variety!

For #202 and #203 the page count zooms up to 80 pages (at no extra cost), yet all the editorial experimentation of recent months has settled down a bit now, and the magazine somehow feels crash-dieted rather than super-sized. I confess that some of the fiction in IZ just couldn't hold my interest beyond a first paragraph, let alone a whole column or two. With no regrets, I neglected to finish the likes of Sundowner Sheila by F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, and Joseph Paul Haines' Ten With A Flag. Well, it's simply clunky dialogues, uninspired intros, or pointlessly arty aesthetics that puts me off sometimes, or perhaps an indefinable combo of unappealing abstracts and overly familiar notions. Whatever... Probably the best story in #202 is Jack Mangan's The Unsolvable Deathtrap, delivering automotive terror with a ghastly Billy Joel soundtrack. Apart from the Lake and Bear stories, I thought #203 was largely below par. A tougher read than it ought to have been. Scattering the 32 vignettes of Di Filippo's unwieldy-titled 'Furthest Schorr...' across umpteen pages might not have been very clever, I'd say. Calder's livewire 'nymphomaniad' opus reaches its broodingly pink-skied close. Calder also brings heavyweight insight to the nonfiction, interviewing Etched City author K.J. Bishop (who contributed one of the better pieces to Andrew Hook's quirky Alsiso Project anthology).

The latest IZ is #204. The opener serves up a fascinating interview (by Steve Badrich) with award-winning cover artist John Picacio, who seems a bit surprised by the observation of 'transformation' themes in his work. The first story, Longing For Langalana by Mercurio D. Rivera, had me yawning (well, I was tired after a spot of DIY woodwork) after page one, so I flipped on to Tim Akers' haunting The Song, concerning obsessed musician, Jack. Like Glenn Miller, Jack struggles to capture a unique sound. When he finally succeeds, however, the result is something quite unexpected for Jack, but fairly predictable to me. I thought the nude-cyborg art by Ales Horak was cool, but simply couldn't get interested in the story that it illustrates, The Rising Tide by someone named C.A.L. (Personally, I think that kind of byline is dreadfully pretentious.) Summer's End by Jamie Barras benefits from the impact of Marcel Blazejczyk's full-page art, a ziggurat emerging from twisted stone, but it's a shame the mediocre story owes so much to Pohl's memorable 1970s' shocker We Purchased People. Martin Gidron's Palestina has an engaging alternative-history premise featuring a sharply etched sense of place but, as with the majority of such timeline japes, it depends entirely upon offbeat-narrative twists and a shameless punchline for its effect.

The final story in IZ #204, James White Award winner A Short History Of The Dream Library by Elizabeth Hopkinson, gets my vote for the best piece of fiction this issue. Here's the rebellious alt-history for today's Britain. Hopkinson demonstrates a fizzy, eccentric imagination, and plenty of nimble wit. Hilariously satirical, brilliantly concise, and worth the price of admission alone, this story is so bloody funny you'll probably still be chuckling hysterically in your sleep. Let's see more from this amazing writer, please!

Of this magazine's regular nonfiction section (which toplines John Clute's column on books), Nick Lowe's Mutant Popcorn deserves a special plug, if only because I hardly ever agree with his film reviews! Almost perversely, Mr Lowe tends to favour everything (Spielberg's War Of The Worlds, Fantastic Four, Disney's Sky High, Nausicaa, Alien Autopsy) that I typically dislike about sci-fi cinema, and unfairly derides blatantly-subgenre movies (like Wallace & Gromit, Serenity, Doom and V For Vendetta), which I find particularly good, albeit for widely differing reasons. So it came as a relief to note that we had, at least, similar opinions about intriguing no-budget oddity Primer and Gilliam's sadly disappointing The Brothers Grimm. Lowe is a very good writer, of course, but, normally, I find his taste in SF films is appalling.

Wednesday, 10 May 2006

Project Fix

New team blog launched today!

Project Fix tracks the progress of The Fix magazine, to be published by TTA Press.

Sunday, 7 May 2006

Mutant X

I saw the second season of this sci-fi TV action series (about plain-clothes superheroes) on ADV Films’ region 1 NTSC DVD boxset. There are 22 episodes sprawled over five double-sided discs. Flip-discs are horrid things, but at least this complete-season package works out a lot cheaper than the five separate DVD volumes on region 2 from Contender (which costs, roughly, up to four times more, per season!), even allowing for import taxes.

Produced by Tribune, Fireworks and Marvel, on a rather modest budget, Mutant X (2001-4) struggles hard to make the grade at times, even as a run-of-the-mill adventure series. With hackneyed plotlines - occasionally borrowing elements and themes from more popular genre movies (X-Men, obviously) and TV programmes (Angel, The X-Files, Alias, and Sliders in particular), the show lacks sufficient impact to distinguish it from a host of skiffy-action rivals, past and present.

Although this second batch of episodes for the super-team of four mutant-powered heroes is more enjoyable, overall, than season one, Mutant X nonetheless suffers from much the same overly serious tone as before. The regular characters (especially John Shea as that reckless scientist turned pompous do-gooder, Adam Kane) are frequently stuck with melodramatic dialogues, which often diffuse any credibility the show might aspire to, undermines its ‘thriller’ aspects, and reduces what could have been an engrossing drama to grimly humourless drivel. Usually, I think ‘bad’ sci-fi TV is definitely better than no SF television at all but, then again, the sheer barmy, offbeat cheesiness of Mutant X typically works against its success.

What the show has going for it, of course, is a few moments of unassuming fun. As when the main cast are all on good form, the guest star isn’t such an intrusive bore, a scriptwriter manages to sneak in one or more intriguing narrative developments, and the episode’s director simply makes everything fit together perfectly, if only for a moment. Time-travel, a werewolf, stolen weaponry, a body-swapping ghost, a corrupt prison warden, a pyromaniac, a humanoid dinosaur, mad psychic brainwashing, an isolated town of paranoids, lobotomised soldiers, and numerous seemingly-evil mutants (‘power’-of-the-week very soon becomes a tiresome cliché in Mutant X), are just a few of the throwaway basics visited for this bunch of stories.

Despite the presence of stalwart Shea (who played Lex Luthor in Lois & Clark: New Adventures Of Superman), and Victoria Pratt (Xena, Cleopatra 2525) as cat-woman Shalimar, the best performer in Mutant X is certainly Lauren Lee Smith, as psychic-babe Emma, so it’s rather disappointing that she quit the show after this season’s cliffhanger finale.

Friday, 5 May 2006

New books to read

Roger Corman: Metaphysics on a Shoestring by Alain Silver and James Ursini (Silman-James Press) is a welcome, b/w illustrated, survey of the movie career of genre maven Corman "one of the most influential filmmakers in the history of motion pictures." (Although the back cover blurb makes that claim tenatively, it's a statement that many film buffs would doubtless agree with.) I'm suprised, anew, while flipping though this book's impressive coverage sci-fi/horror schlock, cheapo westerns, adventure-thrillers and obscure fantasy stuff, how many of Corman's often cultworthy productions I still haven't seen yet. Jeez, I bought The Trip (1967) on DVD over a year ago, and it's still on the shelf! (Must get that watched, soon.) So... this very smart looking book has served its purpose for me, already, reviving interest in the prolific Corman's work.

Shane Ryan Staley's Corrosion, a chapbook of assorted writings from Delirium Books, began life as an on-going website - Project Corrosion, a mix of horror and humour in the popular online-viral mode of fiction-blogs. "Freeing minds... one nun at a time" says the blurb, but I doubt any church would invite this acerbic, darkly absurdist, frequently-challenging writer to visit, let alone give him five minutes of pulpit time! This book is only volume one (in a projected series), so the "literary mayhem" looks set to continue...

British magazine Whispers Of Wickedness #12 (D-Press, Spring 2006) offers a batch of short stories and nonfiction material from contributors to the Ookami website. It's apparently edited by Peter Tennant - a strong supporter of the UK small press, and WOW is available on subscription (online via Paypal), from the site.

Read By Dawn Volume 1 (Bloody Books, a new genre imprint of Beautiful Books) is a horror anthology 'hosted' (so presumably edited?) by Ramsey Campbell, who's rightly championed as "Britain's foremost horror author" in the publicity blurb. The book's somewhat vague connection to Scotland's international horror film festival Dead By Dawn is peculiar, but it's not unheard of for movie fans to read the occasional book!

Wednesday, 3 May 2006

Painting over shadows

Since my Mam died last August, and I inherited the house, I’ve been slowly but surely redecorating the place… But lately, I came to realise how important it is to me that every room gets a complete makeover and, in most cases, a change of practical everyday use. This is something that I’ve simply felt, rather than actually thought about, until just recently. All the patterned carpets and wallpapers have to go (I prefer plain colours), whether there’s much life still left in them or not, even at risk of ongoing DIY jobs turning a home into a money pit. Without being disrespectful to my dear Mam’s memory, I don’t want any part of the house to become like a shrine (portraits on display and a few keepsakes are reminders that I’ve chosen with care). Otherwise, I may probably never consider this place as my own. Does this make sense to anyone else but me?